It is not surprising that breastfeeding, which is hormonally driven, would have an impact on sexuality which is also hormonally driven; however, many new parents aren’t prepared for the effect that having a new baby can have on their desire for sex.
Some of the changes in how people feel and respond are simply a result of being tired from giving birth and the work of caring for an infant. Especially with a first baby there is also the profound change in the relationship from being a couple focused on each other to being a family with the intense focus that a newborn requires. These non-hormonal changes affect parents regardless of how the baby is being fed and can also be experienced by adoptive parents.
Here is a look at the hormones involved in breastfeeding and how they may impact sexual feelings and desire.
Estrogen: All women have low levels of estrogen for the first couple of months after giving birth. Continued breastfeeding extends this period for at least six months and for some women the lower levels may last as long as they are breastfeeding. Lower estrogen levels may cause vaginal dryness, tightness and tenderness. If water based lubricants aren’t helpful talk to your health care provider about estrogen-based cream or suppositories which research has found helpful without affecting lactation.
Oxytocin: The milk ejection reflex is triggered by the release of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is also released in men and women at the time of orgasm and is recognized to increase bonding. If mother, or her partner, has concerns about milk ejection during lovemaking she can feed the baby or express beforehand to reduce milk flow. Direct pressure with the heel of the hand to the nipple can stop milk ejection or the couple can keep a towel handy to deal with leaking milk.
Prolactin: Prolactin levels increase when baby is breastfeeding or milk is being expressed. The level peaks about 45 minutes after baby starts to feed and returns to baseline levels within a few hours. This effect is strongest in the early weeks and is a vital part of setting the hormonal brain receptors which control milk production. Prolactin is also a part of the hormonal cascade involved in sex. It counteracts the effect of the hormone dopamine which is responsible for sexual arousal and provides the body with a feeling of sexual gratification. The release of prolactin during breastfeeding creates a feeling of calm and relaxation. Higher levels of prolactin decrease the levels of the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.
Testosterone: This is an androgen hormone which is usually thought of as a male hormone. It is also naturally occurring in the female body where it is produced in the ovaries and adrenal glands. Testosterone appears to contribute positively to the health of vaginal tissue and to contribute to genital sexual arousal.
While the hormones involved in breastfeeding may have a dampening effect on sexual desire in the early months, intimacy is more likely to occur when everyone is feeling rested and supported in their parenting and other roles by their partner. Some feel, or are made to feel, that stopping breastfeeding will resolve any lessening of libido they are experiencing. While stopping breastfeeding will change their hormonal environment, they may also feel resentful or unhappy about the change in their relationship with baby and those negative feelings may reduce their desire for intimacy.
Taking time, outside of the bedroom, to talk about each of your feelings about parenthood, intimacy, needs and desires will help you both to find ways to connect that work with the stage your life is at now. As your baby grows and changes, your time, energy and ability to focus on something (or someone) other than baby will change too. Like all aspects of being a parent, finding time for intimacy and sex will be an ever-changing and adjusting reality as your children grow and circumstances change.
Talking to others about breastfeeding, parenting and how to balance life as a couple and a family can help put things in perspective. La Leche League Canada meetings provide a safe and caring space in which to talk about all kinds of breastfeeding joys and challenges. La Leche League Canada Leaders are also available by phone or e-mail if there isn’t a meeting happening in your neighbourhood. You can find the contact information for La Leche League across Canada on our website along with lots of other information and news.